If you walk the corridors of Old Havana, you can still see them gathered on the cobbled street-corners, these quiet old men. Grizzled and misty-eyed, often afflicted with PTSD, they sit in circles of plastic chairs and amicably discuss their pasts.
If you look into their eyes, you can see the memories of a war slowly fading into obscurity.
Veterans of Cuba’s fifteen year intervention in the Angolan Civil War, these viejos have seen their fair share of warfare- the most vicious, in fact, that the island nation experienced in its whole three decades of militarily supporting leftist movements in Africa.
But it’s all disappearing now. As these men die, the herculean drama once played out by the Cuban people- whose retrospective numbers totaled hundreds of thousands by the end of the war- against UNITA, Zaire, the CIA, and South Africa in the name of international solidarity and anti-colonialism, is being forgotten by much of the Western World.
No one knows, outside of Cuba, about the massive intervention ordered by Castro that
prevented the impending collapse of Angola’s irst democratically-elected government; nor the way it strained the previously healing U.S.-Soviet relations in the uneasy era of detente; nor the way it helped ultimately topple South Africa’s apartheid government and deliver in a new era of independence hopes and guerrilla violence in sub-Saharan Africa.
But these men know. They, like many from their generation, saw the violence with their own eyes; drove the convoys through the bush, fought day by day in the trenches.
For people today, the Cuban Intervention in Angola is but another obscure chapter in the vast, intersecting annals of Cold War proxies conflicts and African Independence movements; an episode of virtually no significance to the average American. But to these old men, it is none of that. It is merely another memory.
It all began in the fall of 1975, on the eve of Angolan Independence from Portugal.
Luanda, a port city once famed as Africa’s Rio de Janeiro, lay eerily empty, deserted, stripped of all supplies.
Following the largely eventless collapse of Portugal’s fascist regime, the vast colony of Angola had finally been granted its long-awaited independence.
Before this, Angola had been under European control since before the colonization of the Americas; since 1960, a low-burning guerrilla insurgency lead by rivaling independence activists had been simmering throughout the countryside.
The declaration of upcoming independence on November 10th had left the country in pandemonium: a wave of Portuguese settlers- white farmers fearing a massacre at the hands of the newly liberated black population- were fleeing the country by the millions, scrambling through the streets of Luanda and hoarding flights out of the airports.
The government that was soon to be officiated was the socialist MPLA, led by the soft-spoken poet Agostinho Neto.
This did not fare well with the various rebel groups who had voluntarily withdrawn from the independence agreements (UNITA, the FNLA), and as a result a massive preemptive revolt was sparked throughout the country, backed in conjunction by Zaire, apartheid South Africa, and the United States.
By late October, the rebel forces, buttressed by the regular armies of several invading regional powers, were closing in on the capital in a lightning speed blitzkrieg. Columns of armored South African forces, along with UNITA guerrillas, approach
ed from the south, while Holden Roberto’s FNLA forces, supported by invading Zairean troops, came from the north, shelling the city with artillery day and night. The poorly equipped, undermanned MPLA didn’t stand a chance. By the beginning of November, the rebels controlled over 80% of the country; the MPLA held a withering circle of land that withdrew in size every day. Defeat seemed imminent.
President Neto had made a last-minute plea to the Cuban government for assistance, and
though thousands of people emerged onto the deserted squares of Lunda on Independence Day to witness his ceremonial speech, the masses were still infected with an air of anxiety. Independence had come, but everyone instinctually sensed that the end was near.
But at the last minute, Fidel Castro responded to Neto’s plea for military assistance: on November 9th, as a part of Operation Carlota, the first two cargo planes full of Cuban special forces touched down in Luanda. Over the following days the influx of soldiers hardly ceased- despite difficulties with crossing the Atlantic, for the Cubans had a limited supply of long-distance cargo planes, a force eventually numbering 30,000 entered the besieged capital city. The soldiers were well-trained, prepared, and imperturbably content with the possibility of dying for their fight.
The Cuban War in Angola had begun.
The Cubans were immediately dispatched to the northern and southern fronts, their mission being to break the siege of Luanda. They were like a tidal wave, their entry into the country shifting the tide of the war entirely. Within a month the FNLA, Zaireans, and white mercenaries had been driven out of Cabinda and the north, and within a year, the South Africans, who had been planning on an easy occupation Luanda the day after independence, were pushed all the way back to the southern border.
It was an unusual breed of warfare, this war, with the kind of large-scale, open battles that were reminiscent of the European Theater in World War Two and that had never before been seen in Africa.
The Cubans had earned a reputation on the battlefield. Ryczard Kapuscinksi, in his classic Another Day of Life, noted the sheer awe inculcated by the Cubans into their enemies: “…the FNLA and UNITA troops feared the Cubans most of all. They turned and ran at the sight of units in Cuban uniforms attacking, even though there might not have been a single Cuban among them… Later, this all reinforced the legend of an army of a hundred thousand Cubans fighting in Angola.”
Speculation has arisen over why the Cubans performed so effectively as warriors. They openly recognized the technological prowess of their South African and other allied enemies, and yet they continually sent them running in the early years of the war. But to understand why they they performed so well means understanding why they fought in the first place.
The Cubans were willing die for their fight; they believed wholeheartedly in their mission, which they saw as a cosmic struggle against imperialism and South African expansionism. The vast majority of arriving troops were volunteers who’d specifically requested an assignment to the country. “Thousands of Cubans voluntarily traveled to Angola to defend the freedom of its people,” wrote one Havana writer.
Each soldier was grounded in the belief that if they died in this far-off war, they died for a just cause- and this faith was reflected in the terrifying abandon with which they threw themselves into battle.
The same could not be said for the South Africans, nor for the white mercenaries, nor for Jonas Savimbi’s rebel guerrillas. Many of the South Africans fighting in Angola were only there for a government paycheck, doing so at the behest of the corrupt apartheid government, and the peasants who formed the bulk of Roberto and Savimbi’s armies oftentimes did so simply for food (malnourishment in Angola was at one of its highest levels in Africa at that time).
The Cubans also felt an ancestral connection to the oppressed of Angola, as most of the slaves who historically brought to their island reigned from the African nation, which for two centuries was the slave trades main supplier. This spirit of trans-oceanic solidarity was echoed by Cuban reverend Abbuno Gonzales, who said “My grandfather was born in Angola. So it is my duty to go and help Angola. I owe it to my ancestors.”
All the while, as Cuban convoys engaged with the rebel armies throughout 1976, a diplomatic crisis was brewing in the corridors of Washington. The introduction of the U.S.’s communist nemesis had given a new dynamic to the conflict. Though the Soviet Union had little to no involvement in the war, the direct intervention of it’s Caribbean ally spawned fears of power shifting within the global hegemony that existed between capitalist and communist states.
With a government reeling from it’s recent disaster in Vietnam- Saigon had fallen to the Communists very embarrassingly that summer- direct intervention was out of the question. Congress-or parts of it, at least- was additionally leery about the prospect of providing direct arms to the South African apartheid regime.
Yet President Ford and Henry Kissinger nonetheless went forward with funneling support to all the rebel groups, keeping in tradition with American foreign policy of supporting groups with heinous human rights record so long as they openly funneled natural resources- in this case, Angolan oil and diamonds- to Western corporations. (Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA who was to receive CIA funding and training for two decades, was already pillaging the countryside with a barbarism that far outstripped the Taliban.) In 1976, the President authorized an allotment of 40 million dollars in weapons and training to UNITA and South Africa.
Thus, with both sides equally armed to the teeth, the conflict seemed as if it could be waged into eternity- the Cubans may have brought the war to an equilibrium, but the story was only starting.
By March 1976, the South Africans had been pushed back to the border with South-West Africa, though their humiliating defeat at the hands of a small island nation had only hardened their resolve to continue maintaining dominance in Angola.
Now united under the coalition of UNITA, the rebellions of Roberto and Savimbi would rage for the next ten years, with South Africa intermittently invading the country to support their rebel allies; thus, the Cuban military maintained their presence in order to support the MPLA.
The Cuban mission was not merely militaristic. The large majority of Cubans who traveled to the Angolan war zone were noncombatant volunteers- educated experts who came to the aid of the Africans merely out of a desire to help.
The generous volunteerism of many Cubans in Africa did not go without notice. Nelson Mandela would later remark that the “Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid.”
Though however symbolically beneficial the large presence of Cuban humanitarians was, it did little to stop the actual fighting. Violence continued unabated over the next decade, with hundreds of thousands ultimately being permanently displaced from their homes.
The war also began to garner domestic criticism back in Havana. Many Cubans, as with the Americans in Vietnam, questioned why their country needed to be dying in a nebulous war whose parasitic draw was sucking their economy dry. One commentator wrote that “The economic drain, loss of life, and domestic discontent in Cuba…suggest that Castro might re-evaluate his African agenda, particularly in Angola, where Cuban soldiers are now being called into frontline combat… Military expenditures (in the war) have crippled Cuba’s economy.”
Though the war was seeming increasingly prolonged and pointless in the eyes of the Cubans (who were feeling the first economic repercussions of the dying Communist bloc), its spectacular culmination had yet to finally arrive. That would come in the fall of 1988, in a small town known as Cuito Cuanavale.
Cuito Cuanavale is a dry, insignificant outpost located in the dry bush of the country’s deserted southwest. Swallowed up by the sheer vastness of the terrain around it, it was a village hardly noticeable to even the locals. But history would change there in 1987-88, when it became home to a monumental battle whose consequences earned it the name “Africa’s Stalingrad.”
Attempting to ease the bloody conflict into the hands of the MPLA government, Castro had spent much of the 80’s attempt to withdraw troops without providing UNITA a window to once more take over the country. And throughout the 80’s, South Africa had repeatedly invaded with the hopes of bolstering the groups that could finally take down the MPLA government.
In 1987 the South African Defense Forces (SADF) decided to throw in all their chips to take down the MPLA. The socialist government had taken a preemptory offensive to destroy UNITA once and for all, so to avoid a rout of their allies the South Africans invaded again, this time using a large contingent to take the town of Cuito Cuanavale.
The MPLA quickly retook the town, though found themselves at a crisis: surrounded on all sides by the forces of Savimbi and the heavily armed SADF, they estimated that it would only be a few weeks before their army was destroyed.
Following another plea by the Angolan government, the Cubans sent in a wave of soldiers to help defend the town.
Over the next eight months the Cubans held off a non-stop enemy barrage over the small town, engaging both the armies on land and the South African Air Force in the skies overhead.
The fighting was vicious. Over 25,000 UNITA guerrillas pounded the town with U.S. supplied stinger missiles and T-55 tanks. The South Africans attacked day and night with artillery and air strikes.
The final SADF offensive on the town was thwarted in March 1988. It was a watershed in the history of Africa: the largest defeat of the South Africans’ military machine yet, it was an inspiration to the impoverished population of Africa. In the words of Nelson Mandela, it “was a milestone in the history of South African liberation.”
The South Africans, humiliated once again at their defeat in a dusty, impoverished country and facing even greater international sanctions, soon withdrew from Angola permanently. Cuba, which was to experience a crisis of its own following the collapse of the Soviet Union, soon followed suit, removing their last troops in 1991.
The battle, which had drawn worldwide attention, was the impetus for the New York Peace talks.
Slowly, the Cuban fight in African was beginning to drift into irrelevance.
The war continued, just as terrifyingly violent as it was before, for the next eleven years, stopping only when Jonas Savimbi was killed in battle by government troops at a remote camp in 2002.
It had been twenty-seven years since independence was declared.
Cuba had lapsed into economic stagnation, and the military might that once shocked the world in Angola withered and died away. An era had died, a piece of Cuban history slipped irrevocably into the past.
And yet those men still sit out on the street corners, with scant remnants of their years in Africa but their scars, their dead friends, and their memories.
Few people know about this war. Though it bore global repercussions and arguably defined the evolution of Africa in its terrifying post-colonial years, this flashing emergence in history by a small Caribbean island becomes grainier and grainer in our collective subconscious.
So look closely when you look into the gaze of the old men. You never know what scenes from history are hiding behind those eyes.
Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapuscinksi